Urban garden experiment is blossoming in Houston

July 30, 2010 at 12:14 PM Leave a comment

From the Augusta Chronicle

By Monica Rhor

Associated Press
Thursday, July 29, 2010

HOUSTON — A funny thing happened after Keiji Asakura suggested the creation of a vegetable garden in the middle of the concrete corridor and skyscraper canyon that is downtown Houston.

Mark Bowen, the executive director of Urban Harvest, prunes a basil plant Wednesday, July 21, 2010, outside the Houston public works building in downtown Houston.  Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press
Mark Bowen, the executive director of Urban Harvest, prunes a basil plant Wednesday, July 21, 2010, outside the Houston public works building in downtown Houston.

A row of potted herb and vegetable plants are seen lined up Wednesday, July 21, 2010, outside the public works building in downtown Houston.  Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press
A row of potted herb and vegetable plants are seen lined up Wednesday, July 21, 2010, outside the public works building in downtown Houston.

Houston city employee Belen Garza walks through the maze of pots filled with herbs and vegetables during her lunch hour Wednesday, July 21, 2010, outside the public works building in downtown Houston.  Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press
Houston city employee Belen Garza walks through the maze of pots filled with herbs and vegetables during her lunch hour Wednesday, July 21, 2010, outside the public works building in downtown Houston.

It came to fruition with a swiftness that stunned the landscape architect and the nonprofit group that shared his vision.

Within three weeks, seeds, plants and container pots had been donated, city officials had hopped on board and a garden had sprouted outside the 25-story Bob Lanier Public Works Building.

Now, two months later, herbs, vegetables and flowers are flourishing on a bustling city street. A community has been forged among co-workers and strangers who once did little more than brush shoulders on elevators. Skateboarders and street people have grown protective of the plants.

The experiment, which involves nonprofit groups, the city’s Sustainability Office and employees of the Department of Public Works and Engineering, has become living proof that urban gardens can take root.

“We caught lightning in a bottle,” said Mark Bowen, the executive director of Urban Harvest, the nonprofit organization that spearheaded the project. “This is proof that there is something great to be gained from gardening with other people.”

The “Downtown Houston Container Vegetable Garden Project” is part of a trend in cities across the country, where once-vacant lots, apartment building windowsills and rooftops are being turned into community gardens that help provide fresh produce for the gardeners, farmers markets and for the food banks serving the needy.

Although community gardens date back at least to Eleanor Roosevelt’s World War II Victory Garden, more cities are using them as a tool for economic development and neighborhood revitalization.

In addition, first lady Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden at the White House and the “locavore” movement — which encourages people to eat locally grown food — have created new interest in urban gardening.

In Cleveland, the city is considering legislation to create urban agriculture districts. In Miami and Milwaukee, officials overhauled city ordinances to make urban farming easier. Other cities, including Detroit, are looking at gardening as a way to reclaim blighted blocks.

“More and more cities are becoming open to community gardening,” said Vicki Garrett, the projects coordinator of the American Community Gardening Association, which has seen new membership nearly double in less than a year.

In many cities, she said, community gardening advocates still must plow through government bureaucracy. Houston is “very proactive,” Garrett noted.

That might be largely because of the new sustainability director, Laura Spanjian, who came to Houston from San Francisco, where city officials created a temporary victory garden near City Hall. That project served as inspiration for the Houston garden, which is designed to be permanent.

Spanjian had just arrived in Houston when Bowen and Asakura approached her about starting a garden. She embraced the proposal, as did Mayor Annise Parker, who was among the volunteers digging outside the Department of Public Works on June 4.

That day, a small squadron of public works employees scattered seeds in 36-inch container pots and selected vegetable seedlings. Each pot was assigned to a floor of the building, with employees from that floor assigned to care for it.

Derrick Neal, a staff analyst in the department, was charged with getting city employees on board. At first, he wondered whether they would be willing to give up lunch hours and free time to garden in Houston’s humidity and summer heat.

“Conceptually, it didn’t seem like it was possible,” Neal said. “But once it started, the buy-in began to spread like wildfire.”

These days, the downtown gardeners often spend lunchtime tending to the pots or sharing recipes using the vegetables they are growing. Once a week, they get gardening tips and advice from Bowen, a horticulturalist.

“Something as simple as this brings a message to people downtown,” Asakura said as he visited the garden on a shower-soaked afternoon. “It’s about connection, about bringing people to a place where they can connect and talk.”

The downtown gardening project won’t stop with container pots. On the drawing board are plans for a larger victory garden and a farmers market near City Hall.

“We haven’t heard of any other city doing this the way we have,” Spanjian said. “The goal is to show people that they can grow local vegetables anywhere. We want to be a model for other cities and other businesses.”

I posted this article, inspired by Maureen’s naming of our neighborhood, “The Garden District of Chicago.” We already have the Three Brothers Community Garden, where else could we grow herbs and vegetables to share? ~ Cathie

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Entry filed under: Green Information.

Pictures from the Garden Walk are now posted to the blog. So God and St. Francis were talking one day…

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